'Fair Firenze' - Florence

Trip Start Mar 14, 2012
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Faff's ramblings

On the morning of Friday 13 April, we packed our luggage and left our Rome apartment to get the train to Florence. We got our tickets, but it was standing room only in second class, and we didn't want to pay a pile extra for first class. On the train, I sat on the floor until we were out of Rome, and stood the rest of the time to look at the Tuscan countryside :) At one point, the train crossed a bridge over a brown river with a small waterfall and some rapids, and there was a large old decrepit brown brick building with a dark red tiled roof right by the riverbank, and it was surrounded by forest on both sides of the river, with trees with bare branches and some with light green leaves (new buds). I don't know why, but I loved that view!

As the train was coming into Florence, I saw the Duomo in the distance (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Cathedral). We got off the train in Florence and walked to our apartment. Our apartment was big - it had an open plan with full kitchen and dining table and couch and wall unit, large bedroom and bathroom, with washing machine! And we were told that the building used to be a convent, and the ceilings were the original ceilings. They had big solid beams. We walked into the city centre after trying to walk through some gardens which were closed. We saw the Duomo up close, which has a stunning facade with white, green and pink marble, and of course the big dome :) We found a place for lunch and I got some nice pasta. We walked to Ponte Vecchio (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponte_vecchio), which was awesome - so old and such an unusual thing to have actual shops built on a bridge! We searched for a famous Florence gelati store on the other side of the river, and found it at the beginning of the San Trinita bridge. I had been searching for gelati since we arrived in Italy but nowhere really had different flavours to Australia. This place did. Dan got black sesame, and ricotta and figs, and I got sesame and chocolate, and the San Trinita flavour, which was chocolate and vanilla with nuts, I think.

After gelati, we went to the Museo Galileo, which is a science museum. It features mainly scientific instruments invented from the Renaissance onwards, including stethoscopes and navigation equipment. It had several small rooms full of big old globes, some with four metre circumferences! We saw lots of old telescopes and other scientific instruments, and we saw three of Galileo's fingers and a tooth - pretty gruesome. We learned about a lot of his discoveries in relation to maths and physics - he was an absolute genius! There were actual physical exhibits that demonstrated some of his theories, like a ball rolling down an arced ramp reaches a certain point quicker than a ball rolling down a diagonal ramp (or was it the other way around? :P). I think Scott (brother-in-law) would find the museum really interesting :) We also saw a telescope disguised as a walking stick because well-off people of the day used to like showing off the new scientific discoveries of the time in amusing ways. In later centuries, they used to have electrical soirees with demonstrations of strong lights, which were amazing to people used to candle light. It was all very interesting :) We went to Pitti Palace, but we weren't very interested in the exhibits they had there, so we didn't go in. We bought some food from a supermarket and had dinner at the apartment (I had oven pepperoni pizza).

Ultimate cultural experience of the day: seeing the Duomo for the first time, and eating pasta, gelati and pizza all in one day :D

On Saturday 14 April, it was raining in the morning, but we still decided to climb the Duomo dome. We got to go inside to get to the stairs going up to the dome rather than waiting outside to see inside the Duomo for ages in the rain :) The inside of the Duomo is very bare compared to the facade outside, but the inside of the dome is painted in fresco, and is beautiful! It is 'The Last Judgement', and when we got up to the start of the actual dome up the steps, we could see how they had painted the very top of the dome to make it look like the people were 3D and had their legs dangling over some railings. Perspective painting is impressive! :) The steps to get up the dome were mainly long spiral staircases, and I was getting a little dizzy at the start because it feels like you're going around in circles and not ascending at all. The view from the top of the dome was beautiful, but it was raining a little.

We went to the Duomo museum and saw statues that used to be on the facade of the Duomo and Campanile (bell tower), and we thought we were going to see the original bronze doors from the Baptistery, which are famous because of the depth the statues appear to have but they are only a few inches deep on the door, but we didn't see them there. We saw the last statue that Michelangelo did, with a representation of himself in it (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deposition_(Michelangelo).

After the Duomo museum, we had a quick lunch and went to the Accademia gallery. We didn't have to line up because we had reserved tickets, so we went straight in :) And because Florence was having a 'culture week' that week, entry was free and we ended up getting our money back for our tickets :) The first room of the gallery that we entered was full of medieval paintings of mainly Madonna and child. Then we turned the corner into a wide corridor-type room, and at the end of the room, all beautifully lit up with a large dome above him, was Michelangelo's statue of 'David' :) He is 17 feet tall, so he's pretty impressive! We looked at a few other Michelangelo statues (the 'Prisoners') as well as a painting (not sure of the artist) titled 'Man of Sorrows', which is Jesus with his wounds from being on the cross. It was the first 'Man of Sorrows' painting I had seen (we saw many others later), and the title just completely suited the painting because it was the most mournful painting of Jesus I have ever seen. We saw quite a few paintings of the man of sorrows in the gallery, but that one was my favourite. The rest of the Accademia was mainly religious paintings, and they all start to look the same after a while because they all have the same themes - Madonna and child, Mary's Ascension, Mary's Annunciation, Jesus' crucifixion, man of sorrows, and the saints (mainly John the Baptist, St Catherine, St Zenobius (Florence's patron saint), Antony Abbott and St Peter). There was a musical instruments exhibit which was Ferdinando de Medici's collection of instruments (the Medici's were a ruling family in Florence from the 14th to the 18th Century). There were violoncellos (which I assume are cellos) and basses and violins (including a Stradivarius!) and pianofortes (including the very first one) and hurdy-gurdies and trumpet marines. And there were a few paintings featuring Ferdinando as well.

When we left the gallery, it was still raining so we walked to Mercato Central, which are the indoor markets, but they were closing up. We found a cafe and got a coffee and hot chocolate (not thick like an Italian hot chocolate, but chocolatey) and sat for a little. We walked through the leather markets (stalls) and saw the San Lorenzo Basilica, which contains the Medici chapel. We had dinner out that night - pizza and pasta in the one meal :)

Ultimate cultural experience of the day: seeing Michelangelo's 'David'.

On the morning of Sunday 15 April, it was raining. We walked to Piazzo Michelangelo, which had a nice view over the city - the Arno River, Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo :) We walked down the hill and past the old city walls. We walked over the Ponte Vecchio and went to the outside of the Baptistery. A guy in his late teens came up to me and held out a small paper cup with some coins in it and was asking for some money in Italian and kept saying "Signora" and crossing himself, and I said no because it was raining and I had my rain jacket over my normal jacket where I keep my purse, so it was hard to get money out and I wasn't keen on getting it out in such a crowded place, but he just kept standing in front of me asking for money. In the end I just had to walk away from him! We had an early lunch at a cafeteria-type place, which seems to be a common thing in Florence. They had paninis and focaccias and pastas and salads and desserts, etc. And I saw some women with nice-looking hot chocolates with whipped cream, and decided to come back later!

After lunch, we went to the Uffizi Gallery and went straight in because we had reserved tickets again :) And it was still 'culture week', so we got our ticket money back. I got an audio guide. You're normally not allowed to take your bags in, but when Dan explained that his bag was full of expensive camera equipment, they let us take our bags so long as we wore them on our fronts. We walked up the three flights of stairs to the gallery floor. There is a big long gallery of statues. We went into the first gallery off the statue gallery, and it had similar paintings to the paintings we had seen the previous day, of Madonna and child and Jesus' crucifixion, etc. We had a Florence guide book with us from the apartment that explained some of the paintings, and it was interesting how it moved from medieval style where there was no real perspective of 3D to Renaissance where they started using maths to make paintings more realistic and 3D. We went into the Botticelli room, which is what we'd been looking forward to - 'The Birth of Venus' :) It is a massive painting, and is really lovely :) I like Botticelli because he painted women the way they are supposed to look, with curves and soft bellies! There was a vision-impaired version of the painting so that people can feel what the painting looks like :) We also saw 'Primavera' (or 'Allegory of Spring') and a few other Botticelli's. In another room, we saw some Leonardo da Vinci paintings. Apparently he was such a good artist when he was 14 that his teacher was prepared to give up painting because a 14-year-old had already surpassed him in skill :P We have now seen art (paintings and sculptures) by all of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' namesakes (Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Leonardo) :P We continued looking at paintings, mainly the titles and meanings of the paintings, which I am more interested in than style and the history of them. I had the audio guide and listened to most of the comments about the paintings, but Dan wasn't as interested, so he got through the gallery quicker than me :P We also saw "the other Venus" (Titian's 'Venus of Urbino'), which was interesting to see because it is so different to the innocent nudity of the Botticelli 'Venus'! (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_Venus_(Botticelli) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Urbino). In the statue gallery, there were portraits all along the top skirting, mainly of European royals. It was interesting to see how many of the portraits I had seen before, in Wikipedia :P The people's names were painted on the portraits, in Latin I think, so capital U's looked like V's, and names like Charles were Carolus and Mary was Maria. Although, William was Wilhelm, which is Dutch/German... hmm. It had the British royals from James I to George I, but they had some of them in the wrong chronological order for some reason. When we wanted to leave the gallery, it was very difficult to find the actual exit, and we ended up having to walk through an old tapestry exhibition, and they looked beautiful, but we had been in the gallery for over three hours and were thoroughly sick of art at that stage :P

We walked some backstreets, which were really pretty and interesting and looked so medieval :P We walked to the Santa Croce Basilica, which is where Galileo and Michelangelo are buried (Galileo without three of his fingers!). The facade of the church is similar to the Duomo's. Galileo's tomb was nice and understated, but I thought Michelangelo's tomb was a bit gaudy and tacky in a way. The colours of the fresco above the sarcophagus were quite bright. Niccolo Machiavelli is also buried there, and Gioachino Rossini. We went back to our lunch cafeteria and got my hot chocolate, and we could hear a conversation at the next table between a label-wearing middle-aged American woman holding a King Charles Cavalier and a younger English girl. They were talking about all their travels through Europe and Asia ("Oh, you HAVE to go to Bali!"), and the older woman was talking about how her and her husband (and dog) had spent the last six months in the Tuscan countryside, and their Florence apartment is costing 2700 euros a month, etc. It was a bit much :P

We saw that there was a synagogue nearby, so we walked there. I saw a poster of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a window, and it was the Florence Chabad House (we had had our special Shabbat dinner in the Jerusalem Chabad House). We also saw a kosher market and restaurant. The synagogue was around the corner, but it was almost closing time, so we couldn't go in. We walked back to the apartment and had dinner in again.

Ultimate cultural experience of the day: seeing Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus'.

On the morning of Monday 16 April, we packed all our luggage and walked to the train station to meet up with our Tuscany tour group. We got on the bus, which ended up being almost full after a while, and a young African-American couple got on and our English guide Becky saw that there were two men sitting at seats by themselves and asked if they could sit together so that the couple could sit together, but they both said no! (perhaps they both wanted window seats?) Becky asked two women towards the back of the bus, and they said yes. The bus started driving through Florence and Becky was giving a little commentary about the city, mainly about the wealthy people who lived there back in the day, especially the Medici's. She said that banking was big business in Florence and people became very wealthy from it, but they became greedy and started charging 300% interest for some loans! The Church started to say that they were going to go to hell for it, so the rich families started building churches to make themselves feel better, but they were sure to put an inscription on the church facades to let everyone know who had paid for it :P

We drove through some Tuscan countryside, and Becky told us about the city of Siena and how they have always competed with Florence. Siena also has a background in banking, and they had the bank that was used by kings and popes! And Siena has the world's oldest surviving bank. A lot of the families in Siena still have shares in the bank (about 57% of shares are owned by the Sienese), so there is a lot of banking wealth still in the city. We were told that they are very proud and think that Siena is the best place in the world, and certainly better than Florence :P We were also told about the Palio (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palio_di_Siena), which is an annual horse race that is held in the main square in Siena (Piazza del Campo). There are 17 contradas (districts) in Siena, all with their own name, church, school, patron saint, traditional occupation (back in the day), and horse each year for the race. The horses are drawn every year by lottery. There are now two races held, one on 2 July and one on 16 August. Ten horses race in the first one (drawn by a lottery) and the other seven contradas have horses run in the second race, with the three remaining spots in the race also drawn by lottery. They apparently plan for the races all year. Tens of thousands of people come to see the race. They can stand in the middle of the square with the race track surrounding them, which is free. But to watch the race from one of the surrounding buildings can cost 5000 euros! The jockeys ride bareback, and are given whips and they are allowed to whip each others horses, and each other! There is at least an hour of false starts most of the time, and the actual race lasts only one-and-a-half minutes! The winning contrada doesn't win any money or anything, but they get the Palio (a big banner) and bragging rights for a year :P One year, the jockey that was going to be riding one of the favourite horses was paid (bribed) by another contrada with the other favourite horse to deliberately not win. The other horse ended up winning, but the bribed jockey had made it too obvious that he didn't win on purpose, and he was beaten up by his contrada! But apparently when he woke up in the hospital, he had a big smirk on his face because he had been paid 500,000 euros to throw the race!!! Crazy stuff.

We arrived in Siena and were shown around by a local guide named Camilla, who was very amusing :P She was very passionate about Siena and always put down Florence, which Becky had warned us she would do :P Whereas, Becky loves Florence and talks it up over Siena :P We were shown the world's oldest surviving bank, a few buildings that were the homes of the wealthy Sienese back in the day (lovely buildings), the little tiles showing the beginnings of different contradas (they each have their own animal emblem), the she-wolf statue (one of many) because the Siena emblem is the she-wolf, based on the Roman myth about Romulus and Remus suckling on the she-wolf. Romulus founded Rome, and one of Remus' sons Senius founded Siena, they say :P We were also shown the oldest archway and the oldest street, which used to be used for stables, and still has one stable on it for the Palio horse for that contrada. We were shown the Siena Duomo, which is a beautiful cathedral :) It doesn't have tile mosaics, but it has inlaid marble mosaics on the floor made from different coloured marble :) 

We had some free time, so Dan and I went back to the Piazza del Campo to look for the shop that sold the special Sienese sweet, but we decided not to get any because we wanted to save ourselves for the world-famous gelati at San Gimignano later in the day. We walked past the town hall to the synagogue. A tour was going to start at 11.30, but we had to leave at 11.40, so we didn't get to see inside the synagogue. We went back down to the bus and left to go to the farm for lunch. On the way, we were shown a video of the Palio. The racetrack is very narrow because they only race around the town square (three times in the race), so it gets pretty hairy when they have to turn the corners, and in the video we watched, some of the horses hit the barriers and fell, and everyone watching the video gasped. But we were assured that if a horse is injured in a race, they are taken to a farm for retirement and are treated very well, all paid for by Siena :)

We drove through some nice Tuscan countryside to the farm for lunch. It is an organic farm on 250 acres in the Chianti region of Tuscany, and they produce everything at the farm that is on the menu, except for the pecorino cheese, because they don't have sheep. But the cheese is still local. The farm has a stunning view of the Tuscan countryside and over to the town of San Gimignano. We were given a tour of where they make and store the wine they produce, and you could get drunk just from the smell of the place :P We went over to the building where the cows are kept (beef cows, unfortunately), and there were two calves there, including one only four days old! I patted one of the older cows on the head. We were shown some of the vineyards from the hill, and she also explained how they grow saffron, which is worth more than gold is! We went up to the main house to have our lunch. We all sat at long tables, and there was a lot of chatting going on :) Lunch was bruschetta (toast, not with tomatoes and such) with olive oil, which was beautiful! The main meal was penne pasta ragu (and I also had more bread with olive oil :P), some cold meats (like salami and prosciutto) and cheeses and salad, and dessert was a sweet biscuit kind of like biscotti. We were also given four different wines to drink. White with entree, two reds with main, and a sweet dessert wine with dessert. I tried to pour myself small sips in my glass, but I always ended up pouring too much, and I was struggling. I just don't like wine :P It was wasted on me! :P I had a few sips of the white wine and a few sips of the Chianti with the main, but I could't finish it, and didn't have any of the other red. I had a sip of the dessert wine and dipped my biscotti into it, which we were supposed to do. Lunch was very nice :)

After lunch, we drove up to San Gimignano, which is a small old medieval town famous for the towers that were built there over the years. The wealthy families tried to out-do each other with the heights of their towers, until the Church made a law that no towers could be taller than the church tower :P At one point, there were over 72 towers in the town. There are 14 still standing now. San Gimignano is called 'Little Manhattan' because the towers look like skyscrapers from a distance. We could see the town from where we had lunch, and it really does look like skyscrapers. On the bus ride there, Becky was telling us all things to do in the town, and she mentioned a torture museum and a death penalty museum. When we arrived in the town, Dan and I went to the torture museum. It was really interesting, but disturbing! (see http://www.corkscrew-balloon.com/misc/torture/index.html, if you so choose). People were so cruel back then, especially to women! I can't believe the torture methods they had for 'witches', who couldn't win no matter what they did. They would throw them in a river and if they floated (or could swim) then they were witches, but if they sank (and drowned) then they were innocent! Or, they would burn them with hot irons or make them walk on hot coals and if their wounds didn't heal in 2.5 days then they were witches. There were some really horrible torture methods and devices. What is even more disturbing is that some of them are still used in certain countries!!! For one of the exhibits, it had something interesting written: "Mutilation of breasts and female genitalia has been an omnipresent and constant usage throughout history. Insomuch as the soul of torture is male, male organs have always enjoyed the benefit of a species of immunity (notwithstanding certain exceptions), a fact that leads to the hypothesis of a fraternal understanding between male victim and male judge-torturer, an understanding that must have been welded into the nascent primordial mind centuries ago. And since the soul of torture is male, and in the tenebrosity of his unilluminable nature the male is terrified by the mysteries of the female's cycles and fecundity, but above all by her inherent intellectual, emotional and sexual superiority, those organs that define her essence have forever been subjected to his most savage ferocity, he being superior in physical strength. Hence centuries of witch hunts, with unspeakable methods". I don't know who wrote that, or when, but it seems to have been written by a woman :P We didn't have time to look at everything in detail (only 1.5 hours in San Gimignano) so we left and walked up to a garden area called Della Rocca, that has a beautiful view over the Tuscan countryside :) We walked back down to one of the main squares and lined up to get the world-famous gelati. Dan got a scoop of cinnamon and a scoop of blackberry lavendar, and I had two scoops of saffron gelati :) We went to the death penalty museum to have a quick look and saw a gory depiction of someone who had their head chopped off with the guillotine and it was being held up by the executioner - charming. We didn't have a lot of time to look around because we had to get back down to the bus, because we had been told that there had been a tour recently where someone didn't get back to the bus on time and they got left behind. We got back to the bus, and the husband of the woman who had been sitting next to me at lunch was missing. Becky told the woman that if we couldn't find him, we would have to leave without him. Becky got off the bus to look for him, and the bus drove around the ring road, and we found him :P

We drove through some beautiful Tuscan countryside for the next 1.5 hours on our way to Pisa, and it was just stunning!!! It was an overcast day, but it was still beautiful! I thought my favourite parts of the countryside would be the Tuscan villas on hilltops, but our favourite parts were a really green hill with a grove of trees on top, and a forest (or maybe a plantation of some type because of how neatly the tress were set out) that was made up of trees with white trunks and light green and orange leaves. We also liked the green fields with yellow wildflowers, and Dan liked the cypress trees :) We could see a storm brewing in the sky over Pisa, and the clouds were very dark!

When we got to Pisa, we got our luggage off the bus and put it on a little "train" (although actually just a vehicle shaped like a train that pulled carriages and drove on the road) that was going to take us to the Leaning Tower. We planned to leave our luggage on the train while we were at Pisa (the driver was staying with the train the whole time) and then grab them when we were ready to leave, and get a cab to the train station to go to Lucca to visit Kerry and Gwen (my uncle's parents who are staying in Italy) :) We were originally supposed to go back to Florence that night with the tour group, but we decided to leave directly from Pisa to Lucca. We couldn't be in Italy at the same time as Kerry and Gwen and not see each other! On the ride on the little train, Becky pointed out the Leaning Tower when we could first see it, and everyone giggled a little because it is really quite small and cute and looks funny leaning the way it does :P We got off the train and Becky took a few of us to the best spot to stand to get a cheesy photo looking like you're holding up the Tower. As we were walking there, Dan said that after looking at the Tower it looks like the Pisa Duomo and the Baptistery are also leaning, and she said that they are! :P It was beginning to spit when Dan and I were trying to get a cheesy pic, so we were totally rushing :P We walked towards the Tower and saw a flash, and at first I thought it was a flash from a camera, but then we heard the thunder! It really started to rain a fair bit, so we were standing under some shelter under the Duomo. It was almost our scheduled time to climb the Tower, so we ran over to Becky and waited in line, in the rain (we were wearing our rain jackets). We began to walk up the steps inside the Tower (they spiral up the inside wall), and we could feel the lean of the Tower in certain spots, it was crazy! We got up to the very top but we couldn't take any photos or film because it was raining, and I also didn't want to stay up there for too long because we were in the middle of a lightning storm! :P We walked back down and over to the little train, and Becky called a cab for us. We jumped in the cab and drove through some of Pisa to the train station. The buildings that run along the Arno River looked really beautiful in the evening light :)

We got our train to Lucca, and Kerry and Gwen were at the station waiting for us when we got off :) We walked into the old city part of Lucca (inside the old city walls) and weaved our way to their apartment. We sat and chatted for a while, and then ventured out to find a place to have dinner, which was made a little more difficult because it was a Monday and everything seemed to be closed. We went to a place that they had been to a few times. It was very nice. Then we went back to their apartment and chatted a bit more, which was also nice :) Nice to catch up with some family :)

Ultimate cultural experience of the day: climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in a storm!).

Dan's perspective
  • Florence is a very pretty city, well maintained and lovely gardens and tree-lined streets.
  • I am glad I booked the 2 major galleries (Accademia & Uffizi) months in advance, the number of people we overheard saying they lined up in the rain for over an hour to get in…crazy people!!!
  • 'David' is a beautiful statue, well worth the queue if you are one of those crazy people! Ha!
  • The view from Piazza Michelangelo of Florence city is beautiful. Only a short 30 minute walk across the river from the city.
  • The ‘self service’ cafeteria bars in Florence are awesome, great food, reasonable prices, no ridiculous cover charge and no service charge! Winning – just like Charlie Sheen!
  • Our ‘Best of – Tour of Tuscany’ was excellent. We covered a lot of ground in one day and saw some beautiful countryside. Lunch at the organic farm (95% of the lunch ingredients produced on the farm) was beautiful. So were the views, straight out to San Gimignano.
  • I had two excellent gelati tastings. The first was near Ponte Vecchio – black sesame (which tasted like halva) and ricotta and fig…*divine*! The other tasting at San Gimignano’s ‘winner of the world’s best gelati’, I had blackberry lavender and cinnamon, excellent.
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Viv on

Awesome pictures & inspiring, interesting & delicious words (your words conjour up so many images & wonderful memories). I also have a vivid memory of winter trees with new buds. I think its the new beginnings, the cycle of life represented so boldly & without embelishment. it is a strong symbol.
Much love to you both xxx

Melli on

Italy looks fabulous! Can't wait to go...some day! Faff you must have loved all the globes everywhere, and Dan there's plenty of opportunity for photos! How many have you taken on your trip so far?? ;)

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